Tuesday 16 October 2018

How George Michael lost his faith - new doc charts his heartbreak and struggle with fame

A candid documentary George Michael made about heartbreak and his struggle with fame comes to Channel 4 next week. Neil McCormick takes a look

King George: Michael during his standout performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at Wembley in 1992
King George: Michael during his standout performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at Wembley in 1992

Neil McCormick

It is remembered as perhaps his greatest performance. In trademark sunglasses and earring, wearing a boxy orange jacket, George Michael stormed the stage of Wembley Stadium in April 1992, backed by the surviving members of Queen, and tore out an absolutely show-stopping version of Somebody To Love in front of 80,000 fans.

The concert was a tribute to Freddie Mercury, who had died of an Aids-related condition the year before. But Michael was singing to one special person in the crowd, his own terminally ill boyfriend, Brazilian Anselmo Feleppa. "I just wanted to die inside, I was so overwhelmed by the sadness," he says, brokenly, in the voice-over to his powerful new documentary, Freedom, which he finished two days before his sudden death on Christmas Day last year. "It's not an accident that the performance probably most well known in my career was sung to my lover who was dying."

The film, billed as George Michael's "final work", traces his journey from teenage innocent in Wham! to isolated and unhappy solo star. A portrait emerges of someone torn between ambition and insecurity, a closeted gay man overwhelmed by fame and desperate for real human contact.

"I can't really explain how overwhelming that kind of hysteria can be if there is only one person to absorb it," Michael admits. He suggests few human beings could handle that attention without finding it "frightening enough to self-destruct".

The film frankly depicts Michael's tumult in the 90s, "the darkest, most frightening time of my life". He lost Feleppa in 1993, then his mother to cancer in 1997, all the while still concealing his homosexuality from the public - and his own family. It was, he says, "just constant fear - of death or the next bereavement".

According to David Austin, the film's co-director, it was the discovery of a cache of lost home footage that pushed the film in such an intimate direction. Shorts of Michael laughing, hugging and cavorting with Feleppa, his first serious boyfriend, become the heart of the story. "The first time you actually believe somebody loves you, that's a wonderful moment in your life," says Michael.

George Michael with Wham! band member Andrew Ridgeley
George Michael with Wham! band member Andrew Ridgeley

Yet, within a very short time of the couple meeting at the Rock In Rio festival in January 1991, Feleppa was showing signs of the illness that would end his life. Michael talks about a terrible Christmas in London in 1991, waiting in agony for the results of Feleppa's blood test, while his own family were not even aware he was in a same-sex relationship. "I sat at the Christmas table, not knowing whether the man I was in love with was terminally ill and, therefore, not knowing whether I was potentially terminally ill."

Simultaneously in conflict with the American branch of Sony Music over promotion for his second solo album, in 1992 Michael embarked on a disastrous legal attempt to break his contract. "I will never know if I would have ended up in court if Anselmo had not become ill," Michael admits. "I was absolutely terrified of losing him, and the prospect of watching him die of Aids. I did everything I could to get rid of all this anger and fear. But the best place for it was court number one, really."

In the film, he expresses rare remorse about the 1994 case, which did long-term damage to his career, especially in America. "I lost on everything, on every count."

But Michael considers his "greatest moment" to be Older, his 1996 comeback after the death of his lover, whom he couldn't grieve in public. He makes the point that "for anyone who had any clue about any kind of symbolism, I was coming out. There's not one track that's not about Anselmo, about the risk of Aids".

Then, just when Michael was getting back on his artistic feet, his mother died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 50. "I was spiritually crushed and felt so bloody picked on by the gods." For several years, he admits he completely lost his connection to music, "which was like losing God, for me. It really was the darkest time".

Despite its focus on tragedy, Freedom is not a maudlin affair. It has flair and pace. "That is George's cut that you see. I didn't want to mess with the film after George had finished working on it," says Austin, who, as well as co-directing the film, was Michael's manager and lifelong friend.

"George's career is speckled with sacking directors and editors and taking it on himself. He had a great eye for it. As soon as he stepped in, it turned a different corner. I would never have gone so far as to use his private footage. It was something he wanted to do. It came from his heart."

The documentary is packed with Michael's celebrity admirers, including interviews with Sir Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Mary J Blige, Tony Bennett and the supermodels from Michael's 'Freedom! '90' video. The most surprising appearance, though, is from former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, a man not known for praising any artists besides Oasis and The Beatles, but who compares Michael to "a modern-day Elvis" in the documentary.

Michael discovered Gallagher was a fan during a party to celebrate the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony. "Liam kept coming up to George and going, 'You know what? You've got f------ John Lennon in you, man'," recalls Austin.

There is plenty of humour amid the hagiography though. "You mean George is white, are you serious?" jokes Stevie Wonder. "Oh my God! He is blind, right?" Over slinky shots from the video for 'Freedom! '90', supermodel Christy Turlington makes a confession: "I'm crawling on the ground and you just see my eyes, and people think that's so sexy and mysterious. It was just really I didn't know the words."

Naomi Campbell admits her initial reluctance to appear because, as a teenager, she was a Culture Club fan. "We used to throw eggs at the Wham! fans." Gallagher admits he doesn't recall how he first got into Listen Without Prejudice. "I don't know if I bought it, stole it, or if it just, like, got delivered."

The biggest revelation came off-screen, at the film's first showing, where Austin revealed that "there is new music" to come - Freedom may not be Michael's "final work" after all. "There are two tracks in particular that are just extraordinary pieces of music," says Austin. Sadly, any new album will not include the duet with Adele that Michael had hoped to record. "He loved Adele. He would sing along with Adele, practise and warm up using her [records]."

It is sobering to consider that, of the pantheon of 80s superstars Michael originally aspired to join, only Madonna is still with us - Michael Jackson and Prince both having died, like Michael, in their 50s. Austin insists that, despite the problems depicted in the film, the troubled star did find peace in later years: "He was a very happy, contented man."

One of the few changes Austin made to the documentary was to add a clip from an old MTV interview in which Michael is asked how he would like to be remembered. "You mean what would I like written on my grave?" he asks. "Great songwriter. And I hope that people think of me as someone who had some kind of integrity. I hope I'm remembered for that in a way. Very unlikely," he laughs. "I think it's all been a waste of time."

Freedom is on Channel 4 on Monday, October 16 at 9pm

Irish Independent

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